26 September 2018
An ordinary British penny of Edward VII was made extraordinary by a simple act of vandalism, writes Tom Hockenhull, Curator of Modern Money at the British Museum
Stamped in crude lettering across the head of the king is the phrase ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’, the slogan of the suffragette movement.
The deliberate targeting of the king, as constitutional monarch and head of the Church of England, could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country. As Neil MacGregor wrote in A History of the World in 100 objects, ‘this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote’.
The British Museum’s was minted in 1903 and circulated for ten years before was defaced, in either late-1913 or early 1914. It was said at the time that the suffragettes had copied the practice from anarchists, who were defacing similar coins with the phrase ‘Vive l’Anarchie’.
Precisely how many were defaced is unknown but several other examples are known to exist besides the British Museum’s ‘Votes for Women’ coin.
Recent research suggests that it was probably carried out by a single person using just one set of individual alphabet stamps, a process that would have been repetitive and time-consuming. The perpetrator has never been traced, and no direct connection has ever been established between the coins and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), or other suffragette organisations.
The First World War is commonly perceived as a watershed moment, when the sun finally set on the Victorian golden age: ‘never such innocence, never before or since’, to use the oft-quoted words of Larkin. Yet this is a romanticised and superficial view of pre-war Britain that conceals a more disturbing image, of a country beset by domestic crises and civil disorder.
These included anarchist violence and the beginnings of the Troubles in Ireland, and chief among them was the campaign for women’s suffrage.
Suffragette militarism, or ‘direct action’, as it was also known, was characterised by bombings, arson, window smashing and the destruction of cultural property. It reached a tragic climax when Emily Wilding Davison ran out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby, in June 1914. The
simple act of defacing a coin can appear trivial in comparison with these more serious acts of sedition, but it nevertheless conveyed the same symbolic message of protest against a government that refused women the vote.
As Britain looks back on the Representation of the People Act 1918, the ‘Votes for Women’ penny serves as a powerful reminder of the sacrifices that were made in fight for universal suffrage.
Today, 100 years after women over thirty were given the vote (women over 21 finally achieved the same voting rights as men with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928), the coin can be seen on permanent display in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery.
The Suffragette penny (© Trustees of the British Museum)